Kirkuk, Christmas more powerful than persecutions
The most frequently recurring desire for Iraqi families is "to participate in midnight Mass." Problems connected to security do not permit this, but hope remains for the future. Prayers, the exchange of greetings with "Muslim brethren," and the sharing of food for the celebration are the sign of a shared objective: the return to normalcy.

Kirkuk (AsiaNews) - For the Christian community in Kirkuk, the most eagerly awaited Christmas gift is "participation at midnight Mass." It is a wish that, again this year, cannot be fulfilled: nighttime celebrations are banned for reasons connected to security. But there remains the hope that "one day the country may recover peace" and "freedom": this is the essential reason prompting families to remain - amid difficulties and sufferings - and to testify with their lives to the deepest meaning of the Christmas celebration.

During these days of Advent, AsiaNews has met three families from Kirkuk, (whose names we are not publishing for the evident reason of protecting their safety), thanks to whom one may seek to understand the atmosphere surrounding preparation for Christmas, and the meaning of the feast in an area marked by conflict and violence. "At Christmas, families get together to take part in the Mass," recounts one woman. "Although it is no longer possible to celebrate the ceremony at midnight, it is still wonderful to see so many people gathering to contemplate the face of God in the Child in the crib." The solemn midnight Mass - celebrated, in reality, at 5:30 in the afternoon of the 24th, and broadcast live on a satellite television channel - is the most important moment for the families of Kirkuk, after which "there is the traditional exchange of greetings: serenity for families, and peace for all of Iraq."

In the days leading up to the celebration, families recount the emotion with which they "live the anticipation, decorating the tree and preparing the Nativity scene in all of the houses." There is also the custom of "exchanging visits among families, reciting prayers in common, and sharing food, a fundamental element." Before Christmas dinner, special dishes are prepared "for the occasion: the traditional dessert of the celebration, the Klecia, a mixture of flour and dates cooked days in advance. Then there are dishes based on lamb, and the beverages. These are all elements that make Christmas a unique moment," say the Christians of Kirkuk.

The holiday is a special occasion of celebration for children here as well, for whom there are "moments of entertainment and play during the week between Christmas and New Year's; these include the arrival of Santa Claus, who distributes gifts and sweets. And then there are celebrations dedicated to the young people and the women, highly anticipated moments that see wide participation."

What the people describe is nothing other than an attempt to "live in normalcy" that is often denied to Iraqi Christian families, forced to undergo violence and persecution, although there is no lack of "testimonies of solidarity and affection on the part of a significant portion of the Muslim community." This closeness is confirmed by the exchange of greetings that the "Muslim brethren" address to Christians on the occasion of Christmas. And by attention to the most needy, with "the free distribution of 400 chickens to poor families in the city, so that they too may celebrate Christmas."

Within the Christian community, "one does not live in an atmosphere of fear. The celebration, on the contrary, is transformed into a moment of renewed hope: we are ready to celebrate Christmas," they say, "with joy. Prayer becomes a means to alleviate suffering, and to make us feel close to Christians all over the world who recall the birth of Jesus. Our voice cries aloud, 'We are still here' to witness to Jesus, certain of the fact that we are not alone."

Louis Sako, archbishop of the diocese of Kirkuk, issues through AsiaNews a message of good wishes to the faithful: "For me, Christmas," the prelate says, "means being reborn each day in everyday difficulty. The celebration invites us to love, to welcome, to share without barriers. With this profound strength that arises from our faith, we can truly realize peace."